Ethics, Online Debates, Politics, Professional Boundary, Social Media, Social Work and Media

Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct: Separating the Personal form Professional – Opinion piece by: Joe Godden @BASW_UK


10 years ago I was asked to give my opinion regarding a social worker who appeared to be breaking professional boundaries.

The social worker, a male in his 30’s, was continuing to meet a 15 year old girl, who had been a case of his, (young person in need, I think), but the case had been closed for some months. He was meeting the girl in public places, such as Café’s. There was no suggestion that there had been any impropriety. He hadn’t informed his manager about what he was doing. His manager wanted to discipline him, citing the GSCC Code of Conduct 5.4 (which had newly been launched):

“You must not form inappropriate personal relationships with service users.”

The social worker retorted that:

a)  he wasn’t having an inappropriate relationship and

b)  he had never been issued any guidance about what constituted inappropriate relationships, including that it was inappropriate to stay in contact with former users of service

c)  covertly he raised the ethics of the practice of closing cases where there had been long standing involvement from a social worker, pointing out that foster parents are encouraged to continue support of “looked after” children well into adulthood.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of the case, but it did encourage the department to consider its policy and guidance on the issues.

Since the issue of the GSCC Code of Conduct in 2002 there has been a lot written about personal boundaries and the complex issue of separating the professional from the personal.

Following concern regarding the volume of professional boundaries issues resulting in conduct hearings The GSCC commissioned Sheffield Hallam to undertake research. The research included detailed discussions with social workers, a literature review and discussions with other professions such as nursing and medicine. The research found that only 10–15 per cent of informants made regular reference to regulatory and professional codes of practice, with an even smaller percentage quoting specific sections from these codes. A slightly larger group (15–20 per cent) made fairly regular reference to their agency’s policy documents. However, a clear majority relied on their own sense of what is appropriate or inappropriate, and made their judgements with no reference to any formal guidance. Agency guidance tended to ignore the ambiguous areas of practice and seemed to act as an insurance policy, brought out and dusted off when something goes awry. The research concluded two key things:

  1. Firstly, the considerable harm that professional boundaries violations can have on service users
  2. Caution against ever-increasing bullet points of advice and prescription. The authors advanced a notion of ethical engagement in which professionals exercise their ethical senses through regular discussion of professional boundary dilemmas.

The GSCC then produced a guidance document “Professional Boundaries Guidance for social workers. (Not dated, but probably 2011). The guidance re-iterated the lessons of the Sheffield Hallam research. In the spirit of the recommendation regarding the notion of ethical engagement the guidance uses case studies as an aid to provoke reflection and discussion about behaviour inside and outside of work, including discussion on ‘grey areas’. The guidance says that “we hope the guidance will be used by social workers and by their teams to reflect on and improve their practice”.

BASW’s Advice and Representation service has been highlighting for a number of years the issues of professional boundaries and welcome the increased level of debate on the subject. BASW, like the Sheffield Hallam research has opted for the writing of principles, rather than detailed guidance:

“Social workers should establish appropriate boundaries in their relationships with service users and colleagues, and not abuse their position for personal benefit, financial gain or sexual exploitation”. (Principle 3 of 2.3 Professional Integrity)

BASW also recognises the important role that employers play in supporting ethical values and principles:

“BASW expects employers to have in place systems and approaches to promote a climate which supports, monitors, reviews and takes the necessary action to ensure that social workers can comply with the Code of Ethics and other requirements to deliver safe and effective practice”.(Ethical Practice Principle 3).

BASW has been working with The College of Social Work (TCOSW) to develop the Professional Capabilities Framework. A dimension of the framework relates to “Ethics and Values”. The framework states that:

“A Newly Qualified Social Worker should Use ethical reasoning to arrive at principled decisions, recognising the impact of your own values, working with ethical dilemmas, conflict and ambiguity”.

The Health Professions Council minimum standards for HPC registered professionals states a worker (Standard 3.4) must:

“Be able to establish and maintain personal and professional boundaries.”

So it looks like that we have agreement on principles and ethics. It is also really interesting that there has been a definite shift away from the detailed issuing of “bullet points of advice and prescription”.

BASW welcomes that, but only with some provisos. The main one is that social workers must be given responsibility and space to debate these issues and employers must provide that space, via individual and peer supervision to enable these debates to happen.

So what advice would you give regarding the social worker who carried on seeing a service user after the case was closed? In addition to the conventional issues we also now have the complexities of social media – it is so easy now to have communication via social media. These issues have been considered elsewhere, but we do need to add social media into the reflection of professional boundary issues.

Joe Godden  (@GoddenJoe) is Professional Officer @BASW England and Trustee of an advocacy charity.

Join us every Tuesday at 20:00 GMT / 15:00 EST and share your views in relation to this and other relevant and important topics and issues at our Debates @SWSCmedia

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